Mumbai may have already missed the bus


S.Sriraman talks about the distinctive problems in Mumbai’s transportation and why they cannot be solved at least the way it is now being attempted.

While transport has a major role in influencing the location of cities, it has had an even more significant role in defining city shapes and sizes. The concentration of population, employment and activities in urban areas to a great extent is due to transportation. The cities have outgrown themselves and reached a stage when the transport system is hindered in its effective functioning. It is against this background that an attempt is being made to analyse a few issues in the context of Indian cities, more specifically, Mumbai.

Complex problems faced by metros

Cities like Mumbai are locations having high concentration of economic activities. They are complex spatial structures that support transport systems which, in turn, support them. Larger the city, greater is its complexity and potential for disruptions, particularly when this complexity is not effectively managed. Urban productivity is highly dependent on the efficiency of its transport system to move labour, consumers and freight between multiple origins and destinations. Additionally, important transport terminals such as ports, airports, and railway yards are located within urban areas, contributing to a wide array of problems. Among the most notable urban transport problems are:

  • Traffic congestion and parking difficulties
  • Longer commuting
  • Public transport inadequacy
  • Difficulties for non-motorised transport
  • Loss of public space
  • Environmental impacts and energy consumption
  • Accidents and safety
  • Land use and consumption
  • Freight distribution

And all these problems are sought to be typically addressed only by a supply-based response model. These problems are due to the prevailing imbalance in modal split; inadequate transport infrastructure and its sub-optimal use; no proper integration between land use and transport planning; and no improvement or little improvement (or in most cases a worsening) in city bus services, which encourage a shift to personalised modes of transport. The important characteristics of current problems are the scale and intensity of such problems which arise not only due to inadequacy of available resources but also, for example, from emerging land use patterns and lack of effective governance. In other words, one problem has to do with the urban form and its interaction with transport, while the other relates to planning, policy, implementation and regulatory framework. We look at these two issues in some detail.

While there are differences amongst various cities due to a variety of factors, the general pattern of urbanisation has been characterised by high population growth, especially in the metros. This pattern is expected to prevail in the future too, as the basic economic and social forces which encourage the growth of these cities, continue to dominate. Several times in the past, there have been arguments for policies to contain urbanisation (especially excessive growth) and thereby the size of cities. More specifically, the relevant question that has been (and continues to be) raised is: Is it not possible to restrict the growth of cities to an optimum size? The concept of an optimal city is based on comparison of costs and benefits associated with the city size (population measured on the horizontal axis). Adopting the common assumption of an S shaped benefit curve and a U-shaped cost curve, it is expected that net benefits would become zero at some finite city size. Hence, this could indicate the optimal city size.

However, it is not as easy as that since a bewildering set of optima can be identified. Moreover, the meaning of benefits and curves is rather obscure. The economic and social benefits of large relative to small cities appear stronger in developing economies than in developed ones. Furthermore, the social costs probably remain lower in developing countries despite increase in pollution, congestion, etc. Thus, there has been a basis for arguing that the hypothetical critical city size that provides maximum net benefits, if could be measured, would be greater in developing countries. The question that arises then would be: how much more greater? This is an issue that is being looked at seriously in other parts of the world in recent years but not in the Indian context. It must be recognised that the urbanisation process is very often accompanied by rapid growth in income and employment and there is a
commonly held view that it might not be in the interest of the concerned countries to stop economic growth of cities like Mumbai. Further, it is increasingly being realised that it is impossible to stop or arrest migration into cities even though it may be desirable to do so. It is more likely that it is possible to influence the growth pattern of urban areas in a desirable manner by re-orientation of land-use planning policies in such a way that the city grows into an organic and vital agglomeration node. Is this being done at least?

Land-use planning policies needs a fresh look

Firstly, it is assumed that there is absence of space as a result of which households, firms and governments choose only one location with the result the role of land-use planning has often been underplayed if not overlooked completely. But it is well recognised that space is not only an input in production but it is also an important element for locational planning of economic agents and also an important source of local authorities to finance city development. Land–use decisions invariably introduce strong convexities in consumer preferences and production technologies. Secondly, the essence of urban areas is that there is an agglomeration of many people and firms in close quarters. This introduces an element of non-price competition which complicates operation of the free market process. Further, high densities of population, traffic congestion, provision of public services involve externalities. Besides, existence of space between locations means that producers of local goods (both public and private sectors) can be monopolies.

Development plans are more often abused than implemented. In the name of redevelopment, more housing, commercial units are planned and executed without any consideration for the impact of additional traffic generation. Almost all the textile mill lands have been used in such a way that has given rise to a significant number of additional trips. The plan for an elevated rail corridor assumes real estate development in a big way to partly finance the mega project that has no plan to deal with additional trips expected to be generated on other modes. The third metro line is to be partially funded by increasing FSI (floor space index) along its alignments which are already high dense areas. This is nothing but TOD (transit oriented development) with a vengeance without any consideration of the implications of additional demand that can be expected especially road-based.

All these problems suggest that urbanisation issues, especially economic activity (land-use) patterns are far more complex to be dealt with than merely some ad hoc supply side responses and that an approach far different from the past needs to be adopted to evolve meaningful demand side solutions to be put in use. We now turn to governance issues.

A faulty transport governance system

A cursory examination of the existing governance structure for transport in Mumbai even today reveals a highly fragmented framework in that there are so many agencies involved in the management of transport and traffic with virtually no coordination between them. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had no set-up to deal with the road traffic issues with Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). The Municipal Act was amended to set up a Traffic Management Unit (TMU) in BMC. As of today, it is the police department that manages the traffic, but only as a reactive measure. They are ill equipped to carry out a traffic survey from time to time and suggest policy changes, particularly on modal issues. Similarly, the railway component is still handled by a central government organisation in a way that the response to a typical local (demand) need is almost always national in character whether it is investment, pricing or even on the operational side. While the formation of Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation (MRVC) was welcomed as a major step towards separating the suburban from non-suburban services, the understanding in many quarters is that MRVC is likely to be involved only in carrying out construction of railway projects under MUTP and will not to be involved in operations, at least for quite some time to come. Unless urgent steps are taken to treat the suburban rail system as a distinct entity (with clear earmarked allocation of fixed assets, semi-variable and variable costs that are attributable and imputable under transparent costing principles, the system would continue to be aligned to national rather than local interests. The suburban railway system ought to be accorded complete autonomy to fulfill its proper effective role.


The current institutional changes at the governance level that have been proposed and half – heartedly implemented have hardly been adequate in establishing a rational transport operations and management system in the Mumbai metro region, even though it may have been adequate for implementing the different phases of the MUTP. What Mumbai needs is a statutory transport authority that will not only execute similar projects in the future, but will actually be on top of the problem on a continuous basis and come up with planning, policy changes and implementation ideas as the situation becomes more complex and difficult. Even the successful handling of some component of the MUTP has at best been a temporary, reactive and fire-fighting project – one thorn to be taken care of. Though this experience afforded an opportunity to reform the entire system effectively, Mumbaikars have apparently missed the bus (or the train or even the boat).

To conclude, unless some very basic issues underlying the provision of transport facilities in Mumbai are handled satisfactorily, the system will continue to be inadequate, underfunded, in-efficient and, above all, not at all service or user oriented.



The writer is Walchand Hirachand Professor of Transport Economics, Department of Economics, University
of Mumbai.